Most will think “golf clubs” when they hear the name Callaway, but few know that Ely Reeves Callaway Jr., was a versatile entrepreneur with successes in both the textile and the wine-making industries. Born in Georgia, Callaway never lost touch with his roots, maintaining his southern charms and Georgia drawl throughout his life, from his early days in New York or later in California. But it would be the Third Act of his life that he would turn to his lifelong passion for golf and revolutionize the golf club in the process.
Raised in an entrepreneurial family in LaGrange Georgia, the young Callaway developed a passion for golf, winning some local championships in high school while running the school paper. The family business was in textiles, but instead of joining the other Callaways, Ely attended Emory University, becoming the business manager of the school paper and senior class president. He graduated in 1940 with a degree in History.
Those early experiences in school leadership and business encouraged the entrepreneurial spirit in Callaway that would allow him to learn and quickly grow in his future careers as a military man, corporate executive, and eventually a golf equipment heavyweight.
Joining the Army out of college, he was assigned to a supply post for procuring fabrics after it was learned of his family’s background in textiles with the Callaway mills of the South. After war broke out, Callaway was responsible for million dollar contracts. “I was spending at the rate of something like $700 million a year under just my jurisdiction, with my name on every contract. So you learn business real quick,” he said in an interview with Emory Magazine.
He would go on to work in the textile business after his Army career, spending almost the next 30 years in the industry, working for companies Deering-Milliken Co. of Atlanta, Textron and later as an executive at Burlington Industries where he rose to President. During his time he spent in textiles, he introduced blended fabrics, like polyester wool and cotton blends, that contributed to transforming the fabrics industry. He moved out of the textile business in 1973 after being passed over for the CEO position at Burlington. At this time he turned his full attention to another passion—wine making.
Five years prior to leaving Burlington, Callaway founded a winery in Temecula, California. The Callaway Vineyard and Winery established a reputation for making white wines and was bolstered in reputation when Queen Elizabeth’s 1976 bicentennial celebration at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York chose Callaway wines for the luncheon. The vineyard got good press, especially after the Queen asked for a second glass.
He eventually sold the winery to Hiram Walker and purchased a specialty club manufacturing company called Hickory Stick in 1982. It would be this latter chapter of his life, at the age of 63 and when most people were slowing down, that Callaway would experience his greatest success and position his Callaway brand as a major player in golf club design.
He introduced his all-stainless steel Big Bertha driver to both acclaim and criticism in 1991, but in the end the club would transform golf for regular players. With a bigger surface area and sweet spot to the club face, players could hit longer and straighter, making the game more enjoyable for more players.
“I knew that if a 72-year-old man could hit this driver off the ground, that anybody could hit it off the tee,” Callaway remarked after the club’s release to the market.
Arnold Palmer called it one of the most significant developments in the game of golf. “The fact is, 90 percent of all golfers are struggling to play the game,” Palmer said. “His whole idea was to give them an opportunity to enjoy the game a little more.”
Callaway brought energy and enthusiasm for his Big Bertha brand, producing a series of clubs in the product line over the next 10 years until his death in 2001. The older Callaway always considered himself less of a salesman and more of a product man, as he was quoted in one interview:
“I am not a good enough salesman to sell a mediocre product,” he said. “Our philosophy as a company, no matter what we’re making, we want to find a way to make it better. If we don’t, someone else will. People who say it’s all marketing, well, they are just wrong. I am a product creator who understands what it takes to move people to a new product. If I’m good at anything, I’m pretty good at that.”